Defending Justification by Faith: An Exchange

In response to musician Michael Gungor’s post, “Missing the Point (Rob Bell Pt. 2),” Mr. Gungor and I held a lively discussion on justification by faith, the role of works and faith in the Christian life, and the nature of the gospel.

This comment from the original article got me thinking:

All I know is I feel like on both sides of the argument, so many people have lost the point. I don’t think the point to any of this is to have concrete human ideas about God, the Bible, salvation, heaven, hell…etc as much as it is to live in a different kind of way in the world.

Part of my response highlighted the need for a truly biblical theology:

If we can’t build a theology out of the Bible, Mr. Gungor, how will we every awake churches and deepen our understanding of God Himself? Will it be built on our knowledge of our own good works as we “live a different kind of way in the world”?

He graciously responded in the comments over at his site, and here’s our exchange:

MG: Thanks for the response Britt, I’m curious about something… How do you make sense of the parable of the sheep and the goats?

I have never said that what you believe doesn’t matter or that our theology shouldn’t be built upon Scriptural truth… I am simply arguing that your theology doesn’t line up with Scripture.

BT: Michael,

Thanks for reading and getting back to me. Good question about the
sheep and the goats (Matthew 25). That’s one of my favorite parables!

The way Jesus tells the story shows that He’s evaluating faith (that works itself out), not works mainly:

1. The two preceding parables (the ten virgins, then the talents)
both deal with faith. The five faithful virgins await the bridegroom
because they long for Him. The one servant who gets his master’s
condemnation reveals that he failed to steward his talent well because
he believed differently than the other two.

2. In verse 34, the King says that the kingdom was “prepared” for the
sheep who are “blessed by My Father.” In the Bible, this always points
to God’s grace through faith (Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:3-12, John

3. Jesus calls the sheep “righteous” in verse 37, another phrase that
points not to their own goodness (Romans 3:9-20) but to Christ’s
righteousness imputed by faith (Romans 3-5).

4. The sheep reveal in verse 37 that they didn’t even know they were
helping Christ. They weren’t even trying to gain Jesus’ “brownie
points.” They were walking by faith, not by sight. They believed Him and
lived it out. They didn’t do works for works sake, but out of faith in

Finally, Michael, I’d pose you this question: do you think that this
parable explains the gospel, the good news of God – how hell-aimed
sinners are rescued by Jesus’ precious blood? Is it meant to explain the
gospel itself, or one of the (many) ways were are to live it out? How
would you interpret it?

Note the context: the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t conclude here. It
heads straight for the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which
are ours not by our good works but by faith in the Savior.

MG: Britt, I would agree with you if you are saying that the biblical
concept of faith and works cannot be separated from one another. To
believe is to live out. But according to Jesus, we are judged by our
fruit, not our belief. I just pointed out that parable because I think
it shows a faith and an eschatology that is a bit richer and more
complex than “believe this so you can go to heaven, or if you don’t
believe this, you go to hell.”

BT: Michael,

Thanks for keeping this going. I’m sure it’s time-consuming, but you obviously care a great deal.

The problem with your response is that it isn’t careful with
language. Jesus isn’t judging, as you say, “our fruit, not our belief;”
He’s judging whether we had true faith or not.

Christ was talking to a bunch of folks who though they could claim
doctrine without it touching their hearts, but that’s not biblical
faith. I’m not talking about empty, unconverted faith here. I’m talking
about true, Spirit-wrought, grace-bought conversion. Jesus is simply
giving us another way that He’ll judge believers versus unbelievers
here. True believers in Christ are loving people in His name all over
the place; unbelievers couldn’t care less.

As Hebrews 3:14 teaches, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if
we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” Sure,
there is perseverance and fruit and love (“if we hold fast” proves it),
but it’s all based on grace through faith (“we have become partakers of
Christ” is where it began and continues. Perseverance is simply the
evidence of true faith.

Michael, I’ve been a musician and am a teacher. You have a platform
as a musician, people listen to you, and you are more accountable for
how you articulate the gospel. So please don’t say and teach things so
sloppy as “Jesus judges fruit, not faith.” Biblically, that’s false. He
judges whether faith is true or not, and here He does that through
faith-filled fruit.

“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the
law,” Romans 3:28 (cf. Galatians 2:14). Believe it! Don’t believe
works! Believe in Christ crucified and risen! Don’t teach law. Don’t
teach works. Don’t teach “do stuff.” Teach the gospel. Only the gospel
changes; not your good works.

for grace through faith in Christ,

MG: Britt,

16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from
thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears
good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear
bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that
does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus,
by their fruit you will recognize them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of
heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in
heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not
prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name
perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew
you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ [Matthew 7:16-23]

I think saying that Jesus teaches us that we will be judged by our
fruit, not our faith, is a very biblical thing to say. Of course, a
broad Scriptural reading would argue that it is from faith that this
good fruit comes up from… but the point is, believing some sort of
doctrines in our minds… That doesn’t mean very much. Believing
something in our hearts does. I think modern Evangelical Christianity
has put FAR too much emphasis on believing something in your mind and
not nearly enough on looking at the fruit of your life to see if this is
actually something you believe in your heart. As far as not teaching
“do stuff”, maybe you should critique Jesus’ words, he seemed to say a
lot of that kind of stuff. Certainly far more than “believe this
doctrine” kind of stuff.

BT: Michael,

Hey, thanks again for writing. I appreciate the sharpening.

Once again, though, a more faithful reading of the context will show
that Jesus is, in fact, talking about true faith versus false faith
here. Verse 22 is the famous, “Lord, Lord” passage, and in it Jesus
teaches that faith is what is in question.

Why? Precisely because the false teachers point to their fruit! They
stand at the gates of heaven and say, “Let me in; I did stuff. I did
really good stuff.”

See, the fruit of a believer is simply that – the fruit of faith.
You’re definitely right – we place too much emphasis on mental assent,
but I’ve already said that’s not what the Bible means by “faith.” Faith
is all-encompassing, changing the heart, mind, soul, actions, words, and

“Do Stuff” isn’t the gospel. Faith is.

In other places, Jesus explains this very connection using the good tree and the bad tree:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad
and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of
vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the
abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good
treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil
treasure brings forth evil. (Matthew 12:33-35)

The question is, “If Jesus says we have to ‘make the tree good,’ how
does that happen?” The answer in the Bible is that heart-change is given
by the Holy Spirit through repentance from sin and faith in the gospel.
The heart (the type of tree) must be changed! “How can you speak good
(do good, act good) when you ARE evil?” Jesus says we must be changed.

That happens by faith, not by doing stuff,


[END EXCHANGE] So, any thoughts from my readers here? Do any of Gungor’s arguments hold up under scrutiny? Is this the historical Protestant position, a false gospel, or something in-between?


About B Treece
loved by God before I ever loved Him, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by the authority of the Bible alone to the glory of God alone, made to enjoy Him forever, happily married with wonder-filled children.

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